Category Archives: HR Systems/Technology

Work Management Software 2013 – toward a richer understanding of this emerging new category

A new business software category is emerging called “work management”.  We are eager to make 2013 the year where this new category really gains a foothold. We are concerned with closing the execution gap between goals, tasks, and results.  This article is intended to help develop a richer understanding of this new software category.  How we get more done is suddenly sexy and all kinds of functionality and vendors are eager to be included in the new buzz around “work management” software.  Unfortunately, this has tended to cloud the new field with a wide-ranging set of features and capabilities to the point where there is no succinct definition of what constitutes “work management” software.

The following is a primer on some of the distinctions across various work management software offerings.  Vendors will begin to stake out their differentiating features along the following dimensions:

—  Function-specific tools vs. general tools.  Some tools are designed to support managing the work of specific users.  For example, call centers or IT support desk users might use a support ticket system that integrates inquiries created via email, phone and web-based forms in order to manage, organize and archive support requests and responses.  Professional project managers could also be considered functional specialists who use project management software as a “work management” tool.  These function-specific tools are built around a specific set of features tailored to the activity of that function.

By contrast, generalized tools are designed for a broad user population. These “tools for the rest of us” (e.g. calendar apps) can be used to manage work in virtually any function or environment, small groups or large.

—  Individual vs. Group ware.  Some “work management” tools are designed primarily for single users; others for groups.  Most task management systems, for example, are fundamentally single user applications.  I make lists of “to do’s” for myself and then I work down the list.  Similarly, many project management tools are also designed primarily for input by an individual user.  Yes, tasks can be shared with others in the group, but interactivity between members is limited.

The term “group ware” was popularized in the 1990’s.  In contrast to “standalone” applications, “group ware” referred to messaging and workflow solutions designed to improve coordination across many users.  The new breed of “social” tools have many of the same attributes – sharing information with others to get work done.  See further comments on “social media” below.

—  Goal and Task management.  Managing work certainly involves setting goals and accomplishing tasks.  Goals are typically “bigger” and have no specific deadline, but, other than that, there is significant functional and practical overlap between managing goals and tasks.  Perhaps to oversimplify a bit, the distinction can be reduced to the size of the outcome (e.g. what’s the difference between a weekly goal and a task that’s due next week?).  Task management tools, of which there are dozens, can help manage an individual’s work, and they are generalized, but how are they to be included in the new “work management” category?  I can create Goals and Tasks for myself with or without conversation with others.  What is new is sharing (i.e. broadcasting) my Goals and Tasks with others in the group along with progress updates.  Tracking delivery commitments I have made to others and that others have made to me are essential for effective coordination of group work and resource allocation.  So goal and task management have shifted from being individual-ware to being group-ware; this is a significant shift in a familiar tool.

—  Collaboration vs. document sharing, videoconferencing, chat groups.  Unfortunately, the term “collaboration” is no longer a very helpful descriptor.  In the beginning, the term was hi-jacked into meaning shared documents (along with content management and searching).  A recent white paper by Info Tech Research Group, for example, gave high marks to one vendor’s “team collaboration portal” which boasted permission controls, voting by group members, and micro-blogging in addition to sharing content. Co-laboring clearly involves much more than managing shared content.

More recently the term collaboration has come to include an expanding range of features.  A recent Forrester study of “Collaboration Software Vendors” included eight companies with very different capabilities that ranged from file sharing and synch (e.g. Box) to video conferencing and instant messaging (e.g.Cisco/Webex, Citrix/GoToMeeting) to online chat groups (e.g. Salesforce Chatter and IBM’s SmartCloud Social Business Toolkit and Yammer).  Given this wide variety of features, the term “collaboration” no longer contributes much precision to the discourse.  I suggest we drop the term collaboration and use the actual features (document sharing, videoconferencing, chat groups, etc.) instead.

For a further discussion of the distinctions between document sharing and collaboration see my blog “Collaboration 2.0 – More Than Sharing Documents”.

—  Social media.  The word “social” has crept in everywhere.  We have: social media, social enterprise, social strategy, social collaboration tools, social work management, social workflow, social performance management, and social goals among others.  Let’s be clear that the term “social” has now been pretty much defined to mean a one-to-many communication pattern.  While it is possible to have one-on-one conversations, the “social” tools are designed primarily to enable an individual user to broadcast a question or a “posting” to the larger forum.  The term “social” has come to mean “shared with the group”.  The “group” can be a predefined group of limited members or a public, undefined group.  Familiar examples include Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Chatter, Yammer. These are generalized tools without a functional focus.  Facebook and have begun promoting the value of individuals posting entries and updates to help groups get work done.  See blog post about Facebook’s new group features (

At the “Dreamforce” convention last fall “social performance management” was the rage.  A number of sessions promoted “new ways to work”, “working together better”, “rebooting work”, “fixing work”, “new management practices”, “openness”, “transparency”.  As represented by Rypple/, “social performance management” emphasizes broadcasting individual goals, awarding badges in a public forum, and then cobbling together the badges and coaching notes for individuals into a performance review.  Interaction is primarily only one-way – one person awards a badge to another and your manager writes your review.  Social media adds value and can set the background context, for example, by aligning shared goals. Recognition and rewards add positive energy to the workplace.  Feedback, recognition, coaching, and rewards are motivating, but it remains to be seen whether changing how we write performance reviews, and how often we write them, will actually have any real effect on productivity.  Even Salesforce execs at the convention reported that “70% of all sales reps leave because of poor relationships with their boss”.  This problem cannot be fixed with purely social media tools.

—  Messaging/dialog.  In contrast to the new “social” tools, stand the old personal messaging tools, i.e. that support two-way dialog.  Email, IM and SMS are still the dominant ways two people communicate about getting work done (i.e. one-to-one communication pattern).  Emails can be shared with the group with cc’s to others, but the primary function is one-on-one conversation. This is the most personal, the most urgent, and still the most effective means for actually getting work done.  Just because these tools lack a modern marketing spin does not mean they are any less effective than they were 10 years ago.  The buzz around “work management” should not delude us into thinking that the new “social” tools come anywhere close to the power and effectiveness of such interactive media.  One can, of course, communicate one-to-one in Facebook, and emails can be shared more broadly using CC’s and blasts, but the dominant distinctions hold – Facebook is mostly a social media, email is primarily a personal messaging tool.  Read more about the distinctions between the one-to-many vs. one-to-one tools in my blog post “Bringing The Social Model to Human Capital Management“.

—  Metrics.  There is no question that measurement and feedback drive behaviors and, in turn, productivity.  Let’s be clear, however, that there are important distinctions regarding the metrics that can be obtained from social vs. interactive tools.  Tuning in to the social buzz around what has been called the ‘enterprise social water cooler’ can certainly provide a more real-time picture of employee concerns than a survey.  Employees can share comments and suggestions in an open forum that can result in improved operations.  Badges awarded to colleagues can be accumulated (even counted) at review time.  However, while creating a “social enterprise” can render new information and even insights, meaningful metrics require something more.  Social media has very limited data potential for actually informing/improving how work gets done.  Meaningful metrics rely on facts that are documented and comparable.  The system for collecting data must be structured and consistent across the entire enterprise.  These are not typically the qualities of a purely social, one-to-many network. The inherent diffusion of a large social group, coupled with its anonymity and randomness of participation severely limit meaningful metrics.  On the other hand, messaging media has the potential to be a rich source of data for tracking who is speaking to whom, how long it took to get what done, and when was it delivered.  A new era of work management and productivity metrics is emerging which will include such measures as an individual’s (or department’s) on-time delivery record, average amount to time to complete a certain standard task, or total resources expended in completing a goal to name a few.

Summary Discussion

So how does each category of tools mentioned above relate to actually improving how we “get work done”?  Which features and capabilities will actually improve execution?  In my view, the best “work management” tools will be a blend of the capabilities discussed above.  They will be generalized tools that capture and expose individual goals and tasks, that enable sharing of documents, that incorporate both social media and one-to-one dialog in real-time, and that provide a new class of productivity and performance metrics (See my blog “Nine Part System for Effective Business Execution“).

Beyond the features, the new tools will affect behaviors and practices and ultimately the culture of the organization.  New visibility into work activity will drive new approaches to accountability.  New ways of relating person-to-person will emerge that can increase trust.  The new tools will effect who speaks to whom, how they speak to each other, and even the words they use.  Organizational hierarchies will become less relevant as information sharing increases across departmental boundaries.  Personal networks with an ever-expanding number of respondents will need to be tempered with tools that clarify individual delivery commitments.  Network management will eclipse matrix management, and working in an egalitarian workplace will take on new meaning.  In the end, we expect new “work management” tools will dramatically improve productivity in the years ahead.

Electronic Office Born 25 Years Ago This Month – A Retrospective

The first use of desktop computers to process electronic forms occurred at Apple Computer 25 years ago this month.  It was an enterprise-wide, HR application that enabled every manager in the company to fill out and approve salary changes, department transfers, and performance reviews for 5,000 employees.  800 managers signed-on to access personalised data from a mainframe computer, routed forms through an approval chain, and automatically updated the host database.  This was the beginning of what soon became called “manager-self-service”.  The system was called “HyperGOLD”.  The year before, Apple launched the first “employee self-service” solution which enabled all employees to access and update their benefit elections using a personal computer.

These applications broke new ground in two areas – one technical and one behavioural.  The technical breakthrough had to do with managing user permissions and routing rules.  The system needed to accommodate “personalised” access and permissions by hundreds of users at different departments and levels of the company.  Line managers initiated various actions that had to be approved by others along the line before updating the database.  The other breakthrough had to do with the vast increase in the number of users.  Previously, computer systems, even those accessed from personal computers, required extensive training for use by a limited number of specialists.  It was untenable to consider training hundreds of new users.  The Apple systems were the first-ever to require no training!

The result was truly transformational.  Over the next three years Apple totally revamped how HR services were conceived and delivered, and the ratio of HR staff to line staff went from 1/30 to 1/300.  Getting stuff done was not only more efficient, but new policies, better practices, and improved behaviours were initiated that enhanced the Apple culture.

It was no coincidence this breakthrough occurred at Apple.  There were three enabling factors.  First, Apple was the only company in the world at that time that had a personal computer on every employee’s desk.  This accessibility meant that paper forms (and the associated double-data entry by administrative staff) could, indeed, be completely eliminated.  Second, Apple had pioneered the graphic user interface (especially valuable was HyperCard) that would support the “no-user-training-required” standard.  Third, then as now, Apple had an appetite for innovation.  These applications were not available in the market place, and Apple had to build them from scratch.  These pioneering applications took investments of millions of dollars over several years.

The team was co-led by David Arella (this author), who was Apple’s first Manager of the HR Systems Technology & Innovation Group, and Steve Austin, Information Systems & Technology Manager.  Their team included Lynne Hoppe, Dawn Black, Suzanne Summers, Aaron Hyde, Tim Hayes, Ted Ives, Ann Altman, Bill Lee, Paul Foraker, Wayne Robertson, and David Donaldson.

It turned out that Apple was way ahead of the crowd.  Many years passed before other companies implemented similar solutions.  Quantum and Adobe did their first employee benefit enrollment systems in 1992 and 1993 respectively.  Cisco did their first manager-self-service HR application in 1995, a full 7 years after Apple.  Dell Computer’s first enterprise-wide solution for line managers was not implemented until 1997 on their brand new intranet.  Other leading companies like Schering-Plough, Southwestern Bell, Colgate Palmolive, Marriott, AMD, MasterCard, Reuters, NY Times, and CNA Insurance came along in the late 1990’s.

Of course, these solutions are commonplace today, and we take all of this pioneering work for granted.  Companies that don’t have similar solutions in place are now in the minority.  New social media technologies have opened up possibilities for new advances.  So here’s an alert:  stay tuned because some of the same people who contributed this seminal work 25 years ago have been busy working on the next breakthrough solutions.

4Spires launches CommitKeeper on Salesforce

4Spires is pleased to announce the launch of the newest version of our CommitKeeper product on the Salesforce platform.  This application offers a ground-breaking approach for improving coordination, visibility, engagement, and accountability across all types of team initiatives.  It closes the execution gap between strategy, tasks and results, and it takes collaboration to the next level.

Notable features in this version include the following:

    • New Request.  A simple form is used to make a request for a specific delivery from a performer/provider.  The request can be tagged in multiple contexts for later search and reporting.  This begins a dialog thread that documents the whole delivery cycle.  Socialize the task with the broader community by selecting multiple observers.
    • New Offer.  In addition to using the request form, a commitment to deliver an outcome/result/task by a certain date can also be initiated by the performer/provider making an Offer to a customer/manager/colleague.
    • New To Do.  Create a task for yourself within the same tags so that you have a truly comprehensive list of all the work items on your plate.
    • Supporting Requests.  Execution often involves a hierarchy of dependent tasks.  Delivering on a “parent” request depends on the successful completion of several “supporting requests” which may, in turn, depend on other “supporting requests”.  Visualize up-to-the minute status on the entire network of dependencies.
    • Suppress emails.  To minimize and control email “clutter”, system administrators can suppress email notices without affecting the Chatter stream.
    • Attach files.  Attach files to requests/tasks that seamlessly integrate with the Salesforce document library and version control features.
    • Integrates with CRM objects.  Requests and responses made in CommitKeeper automatically appear in the activity history of the related Salesforce objects (e.g. leads, opportunities, projects, campaigns, etc.).
    • Native and Aloha too.  Built with code native to the platform, the application fits right in to the user experience with no training required and feels like a “standard” platform utility.  Aloha status means the application does not count against limits imposed by which edition of Salesforce (i.e. Group, Professional, Enterprise, Unlimited) the customer is running.
  • Easy installation.  Just a few clicks and it’s done.

Find it on the AppExchange here.  Sign up for the free 30-day trial.  Please forward to your colleagues who may have interest.

Thanks for your ongoing interest and support.  More soon.

Bringing the Social Model to Human Capital Management

John Wookey, Executive Vice President, Social Applications at , published “Why Human Capital Management Really Needs a Social Model” on TLNT ( in the May 2, 2012 issue.

Without diminishing what John has written, I want to elaborate upon and recommend counterpoints and further enhancements to the general themes he espouses.  I will elaborate on five quotes from the article:

1.     “People-centric systems should promote connection, communication, and collaboration.  That is the core of the social enterprise”. 

At face value, this statement is true.  There are, however, various ‘flavors’ of connection, communication, and collaboration that offer and support alternate objectives.

As commonly practiced, the social enterprise advocates promote a one-to-many communication paradigm in which each individual broadcasts information out to everyone in the group.  Examples include:

  • Project team members share their personal goals with the whole team.
  • Individuals send out queries company-wide seeking help.
  • Shared document edits are seen by everyone.
  • Coworkers award badges to each other in an open feedback forum.

The benefits can be readily appreciated, but there are also limitations to these practices:

  • Participation can be spotty; some people participate a lot (sometimes too much), others not at all.
  • Kudos are happily awarded, while critiques are rarely entered.
  • Broadcasting needs and gathering input from a larger and larger social group has value, but social networks do a poor job coordinating work and actually taking action.
  • Groups tend to diffuse responsibility; information sharing is very different from accountability.
  • Too much sharing can challenge a healthy respect for privacy and appropriate confidentiality.

Lastly, due to its more random nature, a one-to-many forum produces little hard data from which to develop meaningful performance metrics.

Moving forward the most effective social enterprises will blend the one-to-many social paradigm with its newer counter-part, the one-to-one paradigm: two specific people having a focused interaction.  It is still about connection, communication, and collaboration, but at a granular level taking action involves a performer delivering some outcome to someone else who can assess the completeness and express specific satisfaction.

This dialog can be either private (visible only to the two parties) or open (visible to a broader group of interested parties).  The key principle is the authenticity and personal integrity of the two parties.  This emphasis is less freewheeling than the one-to-many paradigm, but this more disciplined communication drives greater intimacy and personal accountability by making commitments explicit and tracking each deliverable.  Accountability and engagement are made palpable, and tracking deliveries against commitments yields a wealth of actionable metrics.

2.     “Lack of meaningful information is the hallmark and curse of every legacy HR system.”

This comment is perhaps a bit overstated; though the point has merit.  I would urge, however, that while creating a social enterprise will render new information, the data’s meaningfulness has limits.  Tuning in to the social buzz around what has been called the ‘enterprise social water cooler’ can certainly provide a more real-time picture of employee concerns than a survey.  Employees can share comments and suggestions that may result in improved operations.  Badges awarded to colleagues can be accumulated at review time.

I submit, however, the inherent diffusion of a large social group, coupled with its anonymity and randomness of participation severely limits real meaningful metrics.

3.     “Making the [performance management] process collaborative – and allowing people to commit – creates and fosters a real dialogue across an organization.” 

I have spent years studying, and understanding the process and practices associated with making commitments.  Commitments are, indeed, what really drive actions.   But just making performance management ‘collaborative’ does not get stuff done.  Commitments can and, to be most effective, should be publicly shared, but the actual formation of a commitment is a person-to-person endeavor.  Some enterprises are certainly moving away from command-and-control practices and toward more bottom-up participation and engagement.  On the other hand, the actual process of making and tracking commitments, plus the feedback and metrics associated with delivering on those commitments, requires more discipline and rigor than is typically offered in purely social one-to-many dialogues.

4.     “Feedback should be open and collaborative…which results in transparency, trust, and alignment”. 

This observation is certainly overstated.  Sure, some feedback can be more open and it is fine to get kudos from colleagues in other departments, but other client-customer or manager-employee/performer feedback (one could even argue the most important feedback) should certainly not be done in an open forum.  And it is oversimplified to make the leap that open and collaborative communication automatically yields more transparency and trust.

5.     “A social HCM system still supports the creation of formal reviews and metrics-based assessments.” 

Yes, sharing goals with the group and accumulating badges and feedback from colleagues across the enterprise is a step beyond the old 360review process, but providing metrics-based assessment, not so much.

Meaningful metrics rely on facts that are documented and comparable.  The system for collecting data must be structured and consistent across the entire enterprise.  These are not typically the qualities of a purely social, one-to-many network.  The evolving complementary one-to-one social systems will add an important adjunct that can provide meaningful metrics.


The social enterprise is coming and with it comes a wealth of new opportunities. But, let’s include in our enthusiasm an appropriate understanding of the deeper practices and behaviors we all seek to transform, as well as the new communication structures that will actually support performance improvement.

Nine Part System for Effective Business Execution

What we have here is a failure to execute!

The biggest management problem today is not creating visions, nor developing strategic or tactical plans.  The real problem is the failure to effectively execute.  Balls get dropped, deadlines are missed, deliveries are half-done, priorities constantly change, projects overrun budgets, and initiatives do not get satisfactorily accomplished.  It is easy to see why.

We have an overload of messages and communication to wade through.  Communication about execution is not face-to-face or even in real-time but more and more conducted remotely.  Coordination is more difficult as organizations become more decentralized and matrixed.  As the need for collaboration increases, personal accountability is increasingly diluted and unclear.  True employee engagement is in decline.  A return to 20th century command and control hierarchy will not work, as today’s workforce wants and expects more influence over decisions that affect their day-to-day work, not less.  The solution is to deploy new practices and systems that improve execution while simultaneously creating more commitment.

Nine Aspects of Effective Execution Support Systems

A comprehensive approach to deploying practices and systems to support execution involves nine distinct aspects that can be grouped into three categories: Set Up for Success, Follow Through, and Feedback.

Set up for Success

Set up for Success involves four aspects that assure teams as well as individual members are aligned and in agreement with the desired outcomes.  If the task or initiative is missing certain elements or is poorly structured at the start, execution will be hit or miss.

  1. Goals – Much has already been written about the importance of linking individual team member goals with those of the overall enterprise and department. This provides each member with a clear “line of sight” up to the broader organization goals.  If tracked by the system, senior managers can also “look down” the chain of command to see activity and status of how goals are being accomplished in real time.
  2. Clear Requests – This is an underrated management skill.  It involves identifying an individual performer, explaining the context for the request, and then making a clear request that includes a specific due date and deliverable.  Priorities do not deliver, only due dates matter.
  3. Employee Engagement – In the context of the modern workforce command and control practices will no longer assure employee engagement in outcomes.  And neither does “drive-by” task assignments where managers dole out assignments without any real dialog with the intended performers.  Hierarchy is out; managers and employees now operate on a near-level playing field.  Managers need to learn to make requests and then gain individual commitment from each performer through a more peer-to-peer dialog.
  4. Accountability – This is more than getting a clear plan of who will do what by when.  The key to accountability is achieving a negotiated commitment by the performer.   For example, performers are given the option to make counter-offers to requests with alternate due dates or alternate deliverables.  The dialog concludes with the performer saying “you can count on me”.

Follow Through

It is surprising in this day and age to see what poor tools, policies and procedures companies, managers and even employees have for tracking project and task follow through.  Email, still the most prevalent communication system, is ill-equipped to handle structured follow up.  Project management tools track outcomes, but are generally “overkill” for tracking ongoing activities.  The practice of delivering should be much more explicit.  Effective follow through involves three aspects.

  1. Dialog during delivery – Forging an agreement to deliver an outcome by a certain date is not the end of the conversation, it is the beginning.  Stuff happens along the way, priorities shift, new information surfaces, problems arise.  A threaded dialog, in the context of the task, enables all parties to keep in close touch along the way with status updates and adjustments.   Relying on unstructured email messages in your in/out box does not work; new systems are needed to manage and present these conversations along with workflow to show who has the responsibility for the next action.
  2. Real time visibility into progress – A Gantt chart shows the task start and predicted end dates, but it does not provide any real-time visibility into the progress of the project or task.  Weekly status review meetings are fine for general department or project updates, but there is no need to experience a week-long time delay for resolving critical issues and updates.  Systems that provide immediate notice to all concerned parties of progress and issues enable earlier identification and resolution of issues that impact delivery dates.
  3. Explicit delivery and assessment – In lieu of sliding in partially complete outcomes over a soft due date, managers and employees need to “crisp up” the final stage of task completion.  Having made a clear agreement to deliver a certain outcome by a certain date, the performer should conclude the task by making an explicit delivery (i.e. “I am delivering what I said I would deliver.”).  The manager-requester is then obliged to explicitly accept the delivery and offer an assessment of their satisfaction level with the outcome.  Waiting to provide feedback until the year-end performance review misses innumerable opportunities for management, employee and overall process improvement.


No system is complete without feedback mechanisms that inform all participants and guide future performance improvements.  Organizational learning depends on feedback that is relevant and actionable.  All concerned parties need and expect to know “how are we doing” from a near term and long term historical organization and personal perspective.

  1. Scorecards/batting averages/metrics – Providing real time metrics indicating quantity and status of every commitment each individual is currently accountable for with the associated agreement for completion date enables better resource allocation.  Status and delivery statistics not only drive performance; they also drive trust.  The best systems provide measurement for performance of managers as well as team members (e.g. identifying managers who have a high rate of making requests and then canceling them may provide previously hidden opportunities for productivity gains).  Summary metrics that reflect a large number of specific delivery commitments (e.g. on time deliveries) can be incorporated into annual performance reviews.
  2. History to learn from – A historical record of “what went down” can benefit managers and employees by providing a comprehensive record of who-said-what-to-whom-and-when associated with a particular task/initiative.  By reviewing a series of past commitments, patterns of behavior emerge that can guide performance feedback with very specific, granular examples.  Moreover, organizing past deliveries in the context of whole projects can guide future improvements on a more macro scale.

When looked at closely, execution actually depends on a number of identifiable and interrelated factors that address setup, follow-through, and feedback.  Setting goals and conducting weekly follow-up meetings only scratches the surface.  Managers need to develop a better understanding of the many aspects of effective execution.  Better tools that support these aspects are in the Beta and customer-testing phase.


Email Is Flawed For Managing Work – Transformation Is Coming

My co-author on this article, Francois Koutchouk, has a long background in designing and implementing groupware technologies.  We were discussing recent trends in the use, and abuse, of email and perhaps seeing the signs that herald the decline of email as it is currently used.  Our particular concern was the widespread and entrenched reliance on email as a flawed work management tool.

Getting things done

The heart of most business processes and team collaboration is a series of work request transactions and the means to keep track of their progress (or lack thereof).

Simplicity and ubiquity make email an acceptable tool to initiate requests.  But email is not adequate for tracking the dialog that follows.  Email does not support many key aspects of successful work requests including:

  • Formalize an agreement by the recipient to perform, complete, and deliver on a request
  • Negotiate the priority or completion date of a request
  • Track which party has the ball for the next action
  • Expose dependencies (dependent tasks)
  • Share work-in-progress beyond the immediate participants
  • Capture a historical record of the dialog in the context of the request and the project to which the request relates
  • Establish credibility and therefore the trust between the requester and performer based on previous performance
  • Distinguish work that is required to move the business forward from all types of messages, comments, and random information.

The technical reason is simple: email does not provide a structured repository nor workflow features.  Email is therefore woefully inadequate as a tool for handling business processes.

Most knowledge workers acknowledge this conundrum while facing daily onslaughts of emails, irrelevant cc-ed messages, lengthy reply-to threads and  late-night Blackberry messages as the deadline is nearing.

How much longer will we persist with this obviously flawed tool for managing critical business relationships and processes?

Getting out of your inbox

Let’s use the example of a successful sales rep.  Throughout the sales cycle, she needs to coordinate with a variety of individuals within her company:

  • Engineering and Product Management to answer technical questions from the client,
  • Procurement and Legal to fine tune contracts,
  • Accounting and Finance for payments and invoicing,
  • Supply Chain, Production, and Manufacturing for delivery status,
  • Senior management for account management, and
  • She may also have to coordinate with third parties, such as resellers, shippers, add-on components purchased from suppliers, etc.

To meet the prospect’s expectations and delivery timetable there will be a flurry of emails, most of which are at risk of becoming the proverbial messages-in-a-bottle unless she follows up rigorously (assuming she remembers to follow up – since there is no automatic reminder that something hasn’t been handled).  A single breakdown in communications may delay or compromise the deal and business relationship.

Clearly, email is an inadequate tool for managing this work by substituting a low quantity of results-based communications with a high quantity of inefficient messages. The solution may be to move all those disjointed communications and touch-points out of the traditional email system.

One alternate approach is to use project management software such as Microsoft Project or other cloud-based equivalent solutions.  These tools track task assignments, due dates and dependencies, but they are fundamentally single-user applications that do not capture the dialog between the parties regarding negotiation of delivery commitments and changes in status during delivery.  And because these tools require a heavy investment in learning new skills and methods they are best left to project management professionals handling complex tasks, such as building a new hospital wing or managing an ERP installation.

Another approach is to use custom-built software, such as a Lotus Notes application, or a version thereof, that enforces a predetermined workflow process.  Such an approach works well, tends to be simple to use, but is only appropriate for repeatable business processes – when the workflow is well known, does not change often, and involves the same series of steps and actors.  As such these tools are best used for a yearly contract renewal or provisioning of new customers.

From Talk to Action

Despite our collective understanding that email is flawed as a workflow management tool, we are firmly entrenched in its use.  What is needed is a generic solution that mirrors the simplicity and flexibility of email but adds better workflow tracking and management reporting features.  Knowledge workers will need to be incented out of email rather than forced out.  Adoption of alternate tools must be based on getting better performance from co-workers, not being told to use yet another new software system.  Requests may still initiate out of email, but the conversation that follows must be managed in a shared on-line space accessible to all, including third parties.

Performers negotiate and make explicit delivery commitments that reinforce productive behavior and focus on results.  Tracking the request through to delivery moves the initiative along, from talk to action.  Trust builds between actors (requesters and performers), commitments are met, goals are accomplished, moods improve and email inboxes thin out.

The principles of managing work requests called “commitment based management” are 50 years old, fine-tuned by social scientists such as Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd, as well as thoroughly described in academic journals.  Previous attempts to automate these principles, however, have failed to translate into workable software, despite valiant efforts from Action Technologies, Elf Technologies, and others.  The key to widespread use and acceptance will be solutions where ease-of-use trumps complexity, essential to entice hardened email addicts to a new way of working.

The End of Email?

We can glimpse the future of corporate email by looking at the younger generation of home users: Facebook, Tweet/texting and less and less Google email in that order.

Business emails may dissolve similarly into three entities:

  • Commitment-based messaging to handle business processes and task-based collaboration
  • Instant messaging (chat, SMS, private Tweet) for time-sensitive notifications
  • Cloud-based email for one-to-one conversations, casual discussions and whatever materials blur the line between the private and public life of a worker

Ultimately expenses-to-perceived value will drive the decline of email:

  • High licensing and administrative costs of private email systems (Outlook, Lotus Notes, and their respective server infrastructure)
  • High administrative costs to protect against viruses, spam and phishing
  • Trailing support of many organizations for personal communication devices into the workplace (iPhone, iPad, SMS) leads to compliance liability
  • Increased stress of workers unable to handle their inbox – magnified by round-the-clock mobile accessibility
  • Email inefficiency as a tool to get actions from requests; therefore a flawed means of achieving measurable business results

Email is not going away anytime soon, but the forces of change are mounting and a new communication paradigm is budding.  Work management conversations need to be tracked in a new non-email solution.

Performance Management Does Not Equal Performance Improvement – Improving Systems Requires More Than Paving The Cow Path

Performance management systems have been around for over three decades.  As an HR manager at a high tech company in 1984, I was responsible for administering the annual “performance review period”.  The annual review was supposed to be a time for setting goals and providing developmental feedback.  It also insured that every manager had at least one performance-related conversation with each employee each year.  It was also seen as a way to either justify the planned salary increase or, in cases where there were problems, to begin a documentation trail to move an employee out of the company without legal ramifications.  The real action regarding evaluating each employee’s performance took place in the rating and ranking session that all the managers participated in during which compensation increases were decided.  Once this two-day meeting was completed, HR had to hound the managers to get all their reviews written.  Since the salary increase was already determined in the rating/ranking meeting, the performance review document was often written so as to support the proposed salary increase.  Performance strengths and developmental goals for the next period were included in the document that went into the employee file.  Managers understood that this annual process was “necessary”, but no one, not even the HR folks, really believed that the annual performance review actually led to improved employee or departmental performance.

The basic process has evolved very little since then with the exception of two changes: there is a somewhat greater emphasis on setting goals, and the tools for actually writing the review document have changed.  Enhancements have been directed primarily at speeding up the process, not improving it.

Whereas in 1984 the manager would be expected to compose a one or two page personal appraisal report using a word processor (the newer programs at the time had spell checking), today managers can “write” the review with a few clicks of their mouse.  Today’s performance management software lets managers click to select the characteristic (e.g. “exhibits teamwork”) they want to include from a predefined list (sometimes called “coaching tips”), click to decide how strongly or weakly worded they want to make the point, and voila, a politically correct, legally correct, and spell-checked paragraph has been “written”.  Several more clicks and in less than 10 minutes the reviewing manager is done with the (too often dreaded) annual review process for that employee.

I recently viewed the product tour for an industry-leading performance management system.  In touting its system application sophistication the vendor boasted… “With the click of a button…the document can be automatically personalized…”  Does anyone else see the oxymoron here….”automatically personalized”?

This is the same old practice packaged with enhanced electronic aids.  The increasing speed and automation of this approach actually serves to reduce the value of the employee performance review process.  We’ve just paved the cow path and upped the speed limit!  Is this really the direction we want to be going?

I will mention here three initial concerns I have with this development:

(1)  Speeding up the writing process reduces the effectiveness of the intended communication to the employee. The process of writing is actually a process of thinking.  Managers who take the time to compose their own original paragraphs are likely to be much more specific and grounded in their feedback than any generalized “coaching tip”.  Additionally, the act of the writing is also indirectly helping the manager to prepare his/her script for the upcoming meeting with the employee. [Note: Some performance management systems enable sending the document to the employee and obtaining their electronic signature, thus allowing the manager to actually skip the meeting or personal communication altogether.]

(2) Automating the document sets the wrong mood for the actual meeting with the employee to discuss their performance. Automating the document implicitly suggests that the review process is “automatic”, mechanistic, and mostly quantitative.  Automated writing suggests that template writing is better.  The quicker the manager and employee get through this annual process the quicker they can get back to the “real work”—as if employee development were not part of the job.

(3)  This performance management system is often confused with a performance improvement system. Traditional performance management systems have the right lever for improving performance: the one-to-one communication between manager and employee.  Conversely, they have a totally inadequate and warped implementation of the practice in terms of frequency of occurrence and quality of this conversation.  Performance improvement conversations do benefit from periodic goal setting and review, but the real driver is at the more granular level of making and keeping commitments on a week-by-week, month-after-month basis.  Every task request a manager makes is an opportunity to forge an effective agreement for a specific and defined performance level.  Each request begins a dialog that should have an explicit delivery and assessment at the end.  Each dialog is an opportunity to enhance performance and build trust.

A new breed of software tools is coming to the market based on the concept of performance improvement.  The annual employee review document will persist, but the new tools will focus on the frequency and quality of the one-to-one ongoing dialog between managers and their staff.  The real lever for boosting personal and enterprise-wide performance is elevating and illuminating these closed-loop conversations.  These new software applications will offer the first fundamental advancement in performance management practice in over three decades.

Something Invisible is Killing the Animals – What Microbiology can teach us about the health of enterprises

In the middle 1800’s Louis Pasteur and Agostino Bassi proposed the radical idea that something invisible was killing the animals.  Their insights and later developments are known today as germ theory.  Their hypothesis was highly controversial, but their carefully designed experiments gradually gained converts and lifted a shroud that led to numerous breakthroughs.  This work, coupled with advancements in the technology of the microscope, was the foundation of Microbiology.

I propose we are on the verge of a similar breakthrough in the “biology” of enterprises.  Similar to animal cells, information exchange is the smallest component of an action that results in a new outcome.  The interpersonal exchange is the dialog that takes place between a requester and a performer.  Like cells in our bodies, how well these conversations are functioning (i.e. how well they are crafted, nurtured, tracked, and evaluated) has a direct relationship on how well the whole organism-enterprise performs.

By deconstructing, we can readily see that all initiatives are the result of a network of requester-performer conversations.  But there is no technology today, analogous to the microscope, which really enables us to “see” these in-progress conversations.  We know these conversations are going on, but there is no effective means to evaluate their “health” and impact on the enterprise.  In fact, something invisible may be “killing” the enterprise.

New technology, however, is coming.  We are at the beginning of finally being able to “see” these conversations in progress and to begin intervening to strengthen them.

First of all, let’s be clear about what can currently be seen and what is lacking. Today knowledge workers use emails, wiki’s, task management software tools, and shared documents to initiate, track, and review work initiatives and related workflow.  On reflection, however, these tools reveal only fragments of a complete conversation – the skin and bones, as it were.  Moreover, they omit some of the most important parts of the actual dialog between the person who made a request and the intended performer.

The thread of an email comes closest to revealing a complete conversation, but even this is a small fraction of the whole.  Email threads can show who is talking to whom and can provide a glimpse into the content.  On the other hand, emails are not action-oriented, and there is nothing in an email thread that speaks to the “status” or quality of the conversation.  Moreover, each email is an isolated bit of data; there is no technology that enables observation of patterns across emails.

What needs to be seen-understood-evaluated is the quality (“health”) of the dialog.  Dialog assessment quality addresses questions such as:

  • Was the original request clear and understood by the intended performer?
  • Did the performer actually agree to deliver what was requested on the agreed upon date?
  • Is the delivery going to be made on time?  If not, what intervened along the way to force a change in the delivery?
  • Was a final delivery made, and when, and was it actually responsive to the original request?

The above are the critical factors that really matter in terms of performance; this is execution in-progress.  Multiplied a thousand times, the quality of these conversations obviously determines the success of the enterprise.

So now that we understand what we’re looking for, I submit that software technology can play a role similar to the microscope.  There are two main challenges, and software technology offers value for each.

The first challenge is the need to capture a complete conversation that has enough information with which the enterprise-requestor-implementer can assess the quality of the dialog.  Email threads are insufficient; an additional technology is needed that mandates and captures more data and that includes the full closed-loop with a beginning, middle, and end.  Once the conversation has begun, the two parties need to progress along a guided path that eventually leads to some closure and assessment.  All work requests-initiatives do naturally progress and, one way or another, the parties move forward with each other.  Some outcome is achieved.  But, left to their own devices, individuals will not generally follow the discipline needed to capture all the information needed to assess the conversation.  Here is where carefully designed technology can play a role to enforce some discipline into the conversation that captures the data needed for assessment.

The second challenge is the need to expose these complete conversations for viewing.  Once a conversation can be “seen” it can be determined if it was optimal and beneficial to the enterprise-customer.  We will be seeing, for the first time, execution-in-progress. If the whole conversation pattern can be seen, the requester-implementer can intervene to mend, repair, inoculate, or vaccinate the whole body of the enterprise’s performance.  A complete conversation database can be used to display both individual performance parameters and enterprise-wide trends at a granular level previously unavailable.

As in microbiology, many small interactions, nearly invisible, can determine the essential culture and effectiveness of the enterprise.  New technologies are coming that will enable truly transformative observations about enterprise performance that may be as important as microbiology has been to improving human health.

Performance Management – Debate and Opinions

This is the first in a series of articles dealing with Performance Management (and more precisely my real interest in Performance Improvement).

This article is structured in the form of a debate that is intended to engage and challenge existing positions and thought patterns. Listed below are four propositions and the Agree and Disagree positions for each proposition.  Included is my position on each Proposition, and I welcome and look forward to hearing which side of the Propositions you support.

Proposition 1:  The once or twice per year performance review does nothing to improve personal performance.

  • Agree: The primary benefit of the annual performance review is to provide a document for the files.  The annual performance review does virtually nothing to engage the employee nor spur an employee’s performance.  The main practice that really drives personal performance is the daily or weekly one-on-one meeting with your manager, management team, and/or internal or external customer.
  • Disagree: The annual performance review meeting and appraisal document are important opportunities to provide feedback that results in significantly improved future performance.  It is also the main opportunity to make sure the employee’s activities are aligned with corporate goals.  Setting goals is a key part of achieving excellent performance.

My view: Even though the proposition is stated in the extreme (i.e. “does nothing to improve…”), I do come down closer to the Agree position.  Setting goals is valuable, but by far the main driver of personal performance is the quality of the relationship and dialog with your manager / customer.  The value of the annual written appraisal is just that it forces the manager to have a conversation and a document in the files.  While it is true that suggestions made during the annual review are treated more seriously than at other times, there are many more opportunities for positive or corrective feedback during the year.  An iterative process of reminders and repetition can drive improvements in personal performance that stick.

Proposition 2:  The dominant driver of organization performance is hiring the right people.

  • Agree: People perform because of who they are, their competencies, and their personal motivations.  Systematic approaches to improving performance lead to only marginal improvements in actual performance.  If you really look at it, people’s day-to-day performance levels do not really change that much.
  • Disagree: Employees can be developed.  Good management practices and training can turn marginal employees into stars.

My view: I go with the Agree position.  Training is useful for providing knowledge and can contribute to some improvement in skills, but will not turn marginal performers into stars.  Bad management practices can certainly drive down personal performance, but I do not believe the opposite is true.  Managers have a disproportionate influence on overall organization performance which is why managerial hires are particularly critical and why systems that reinforce good management practices are so important to the enterprise.

Proposition 3:  Pay-for-performance schemes do not really affect an organization’s performance.

  • Agree: Employees are going to perform at whatever level they can, with or without rating and ranking schemes tied to compensation and bonuses.  Pay-for-performance schemes are simply a means to rationalize pay discrepancies and minimize complaints.  Employees mostly just learn to “game” the system to maximize their pay.
  • Disagree: Money is a real motivator of improved performance.  If employees see an opportunity to make more money, they will excel to get it.

My view: I will take the Agree position again.  Except for sales people and other employees whose pay is largely based on commissions, pay differentials do not motivate better personal performance, i.e. people do not work harder-better-longer to make a 6% raise instead of a 4% raise in base pay.  Bonuses can drive some improvement in personal performance, but only if the potential amount of the bonus is significant and known in advance (i.e. more like a commission scheme).  To press the point, I do not think I have ever seen or experienced a real “pay-for-performance” system (i.e. one that awards significant increases [>=10%] to top performers and no increase for those contributing significantly less).  Human beings are notoriously “relative” – a 5% increase can be good or bad depending on what others are getting.

Proposition 4:  Performance management software systems have little effect on the organization’s performance.

  • Agree: Like virtually all other software tools, performance management software is mostly about recording and reporting what has happened in the past.  They have virtually no effect on actually driving performance improvements going forward.
  • Disagree: Systems can be powerful organization development interventions that can stimulate improved practices and behaviors on the part of managers and employees that have substantial effect on overall performance.

My view: As a software vendor myself, it will be no surprise that I take the Disagree position.  Well-designed systems can do a lot more than just record events and report history.  Over and above the productivity gains and analysis systems provide, interactive systems used by managers and employees enable, nay, require, certain actions by the user to advance the process.  The system designer who is attentive to the power of systems to influence behavior deliberately supports certain entries and avoids others.  Policies and desired practices are embedded in the software.  Using the software “trains” users, and thereby instantiates individual behaviors which can have a substantial impact on organization performance.  Systems that require repetitive interaction can even contribute to the “softer” sides of management that cover trust, accountability, transparency, and the quality of the dialog between managers and their staff. 

What’s your viewpoint on these 4 propositions?  Future articles will propose some ideas for next generation systems that actually improve performance.

My Workflow Journey: From Apple to 4 Spires

As I begin this dialog of blog entries presenting my observations, ideas and suggestions, it is appropriate to provide readers with a view into my background, credentials, biases, and predilections.  For over two decades I have been intrigued with the power software applications can have to significantly improve organization performance and employee engagement.

Prior to starting my 8 year career at Apple in 1983 and getting immersed in the more technical side of systems development I worked in the “softer” sciences of human interaction as an Organization Development consultant.   I led training groups, coached executives, and facilitated off-site retreats for management groups – the traditional OD interventions intended to improve organization performance.  I was generally disappointed with the results, however, because once the “high” of the event faded, most participants would invariably return to their previous behavior.  The intended changes did not stick.  Disillusioned, I moved away from this field of work.

Apple HR Systems, Technology, and Innovations Group

In 1986 I was the founding Manager of Apple’s HR Systems, Technology and Innovation Group; the group that did the seminal work on the electronic office.  At that time, Apple was the only company in the world that had a personal computer on every employee’s desk, and that infrastructure was the basis for our Group’s development of the first generation of electronic forms and workflow management solutions for an organization of 5,000 employees.

Over a 4 year period my team designed, developed, and implemented a series of first-ever applications that enabled:

  • Managers to write, edit, and compile online performance reviews,
  • Managers to recommend and approve staff salary increases and bonuses,
  • Recruiters and managers to scan, track, and retrieve resumes,
  • Employees to evaluate, price, and select their flexible benefits, and
  • Managers to directly update employee records using a workflow approval process and electronic signatures.

The computer on every employee’s desk was a Macintosh, and having “grown up” with the Mac User Interface Guidelines as a standard, the solutions that we developed demanded a very high level of user interactivity in order to satisfy user expectations and ensure adoption.  This audience really understood what a superior Graphic User Interface (GUI) looked like; just saying it was “user-friendly and intuitive” was not enough.

The applications this team developed at Apple were way ahead of their time.  It was over five years before other companies, even those as innovative as Lotus Development Corp, deployed similar networked solutions for their employees, and it was fully 10 years before similar intranet solutions were coming on the scene at technology leading companies like Dell Computer.  I know this because both Lotus and Dell were customers of mine at the time.

During this period, I developed an insight that has guided me ever since:  A well crafted and thought-out software application can be a transformational Organization Development (OD) intervention with sticking power.

Apple to 4 Spires – Software Solutions focused on User Interactions

Software developers and architects design their applications to capture, manipulate, organize, and report on data. The paradigms and characteristics of the user’s behavior in an organizational context, however, are not often explicitly considered.

In addition to designs that elegantly and efficiently capture and report on data, I approach software design with the concerns of what behaviors and practices are being introduced and reinforced on the part of users.  I am concerned that design requirements also consider questions such as:

  • What are the organizational implications of enabling certain actions and preventing others?
  • What practice of interaction between people is the software instantiating?
  • What mood does the software create for its users?

My career has been focused around and dedicated to developing work management solutions for business that address these concerns and that strive to enhance organization performance.  4 Spires was founded to continue this legacy with a vision to create business applications that enhance the way work gets done through collaborative efforts by facilitating collaboration, commitments, and trust-building as means to substantially improve organization performance.

This Blog series will orient on my observations and recommendations about the role well-designed software can play in achieving these outcomes.  Beyond just using software to help get things done, the topics covered will include workplace trust, requestor and performer accountability, performance metrics, user adoption, social networking, managing remote workers, and the sensibilities of the modern work force among others.

I look forward to participating with readers in this dialog.